JIMMY WAGES

Taken from a 1983 interview by Hank Davis & Colin Escott
Editing and introduction by Hank Davis


In August, 1983, we left Memphis and headed south in search of Jimmy Wages. He had recorded at least four unreleased sides for Sun in the middle 1950s, but little was known of him. His music suggested that, even by Sun's standards, Wages was a rather unorthodox individual. The eventual meeting with Wages in northern Mississippi confirmed this impression. Sporting shoulder length hair and looking like a latter day Elvis, Wages roared through downtown Tupelo in a beige Cadillac leading us on a winding path to his house.

On the homefront, things seemed more conventional, even oddly peaceful. Wages, in his late 40s, shared a modest house with his mother. We spoke for several hours, during which the conversation touched on Jimmy's Sun days, his musical background and present gigs and, ever so lightly, Jimmy's family background and lifestyle.


Like several of his Sun confreres, notably Jerry Lee Lewis, Jimmy Wages' music has a tortured side. Bizarre, quasi-religious images are mixed with disturbing personal themes. Jimmy's vision of women (conveyed in "Miss Pearl" and "Mad Man") is unsettling to say the least. The conflict between good and evil and ritualized moral judgements are embodied in "Take Me" (originally titled "Garden Of Evil"). If anything, Wages' songs are even more revealing than Lewis's since Wages, unlike Jerry Lee, wrote all of his own material.

Jimmy Wages is a true musical primitive. His voice, never a trained or precision instrument is adequate to deliver his often strange lyrics. The musical accompaniment on his recordings is undisciplined and unorthodox, despite the presence of several stalwart session men. The sides project a wild, out of control charm, including a totally out of place steel guitar.

The lyrics to Wages' songs are often raw, unpolished folk poetry. They are far from commercial pop songs, but are nevertheless quite effective because of the obvious urgency with which he delivers them. Jimmy's soul was very close to the surface when he wrote and performed this material. As producer Jack Clement surmised when he decided not to release any of it, few people would have had an easy time connecting with Jimmy Wages' music. Even when rockabilly was at its peak, this was not mainstream music. Certainly it was out of place in an era of "Teenage Queens".

But in an entirely different sense, this is both compelling and revealing music. For all its chaos and pain and sheer drive, Jimmy Wages' small recorded legacy is what the best southern music is all about: blues, hillbilly, gospel morality plays, pain, conflict, nightmares and, most of all, unbridled honesty. One learns much more about Jimmy Wages by listening to these tracks than by interviewing him for several hours in the dusty Tupelo summer. Jimmy Wages was never intended for the Top 40. But his music is special enough to merit some very close attention.



Q: Have you lived in Tupelo all your life?
A: Yes. That's right.

Q: I guess you've crossed paths with Elvis?
A: Elvis and I were the same age. We went to school together before they moved to Memphis. I knew him before he became famous.

Q: Would you have guessed how famous he would become when you first knew him?
A: No. He was so timid and shy.

Q: How did you first make contact with Sun Records?
A: I knew all the musicians in Tupelo, like the Miller Sisters. We were doing club dates together all around. And they were going up there to record, so one day we decided we'd go up there and try. The guy we saw wasn't Sam Phillips. It was Jack Clement. He kept us coming back. We did four or five sessions. I kept recording my songs. Everything I did was my material. It was 8 or 10 songs, I think. I can't recall them all. There was "Garden Of Evil", "Mad Man", Miss Pearl". When I made the master for "Mad Man", we were in the studio for five hours. That was the way Jack Clement worked. You'd go for an hour, then he'd say I'm going to let you rest awhile. Go get a cup of coffee. Then after 30 minutes you'd get back to work again. Some of the other songs we did were just demos. We were just trying out the material.

Q: Did you use your own band on the sessions?
A: No. That's the reason I couldn't get the tapes after I left. Sun was paying for the studio time and the session men. They paid for Jerry Lee Lewis, Charlie Rich, all the guys who played on my sessions.

Q: Would you recall some of the others if we said their names?
A: Yes, I think so.

Q: Jimmy Van Eaton on drums?
A: Yes! On one session.

Q: Billy Riley?
A: No. I knew Billy, but he didn't play on any of my records.

Q: Were you playing guitar?
A: No. I wasn't playing anything.

Who was the bass player?
A: I remember my bass player on one of them. He was from Tupelo. I brought him up with me. His name was Jesse Carter.

Q: You never had a release on Sun?
A: Sam wanted to release "Mad Man" right away. But Jack Clement said, 'No, let's wait on it. We might get something better.' Jack was doing a lot of writing himself and almost everything that was coming out right then was his material. Maybe if I had recorded something he had written I'd have got a release. That's the way I look at it.

Q: Did you sign any documents with Sun?
A: I never signed a contract with them. Not even a publishing contract for the songs.

Did you go to other record companies afterward?
A: For quite a while I thought Sun was going to put something out and I kept waiting. After a while I gave up. A few years after the last session, I went up to Sun and tried to get hold of my tapes, I said 'If you guys won't release anything there are labels that might.' But Jack Clement said 'No, we can't do that. We have our own sound here. We can't let you have those tapes.' So I never got anything. They never charged me for the studio or the musicians. At the time they were trying anything they could. There was such a boom in that kind of music. Orbison had just come in and he was trying his stuff. There were 25 other artists there at least. Later on I went to Hi Records when Ray Harris was there. I cut a session but nothing ever came out. We didn't get a good cut.

Q: You knew Ray Harris because of Tupelo?
A: That's right. He was from here.

Q: (HD) - When I visited Hi in June, 1960, Ray Harris was the engineer. He had just cut a session on Jay B. Lloyd ("I'll Be All Right" b/w "I'm So Lonely").
A: Yeh. My session was after that. Jay B. and I are friends. He lived on the same street here before he moved to Memphis.

Q: Did you do any other sessions?
A: I did one other session in Memphis. It was for Stan Kesler. A couple of country things. I took them up to Nashville but nothing happened. I also did a session at Woodland Studios in Nashville. About 7 or 8 years ago. Nothing came of that either.

Q: So you finally stopped trying to record.
A: Yes. One reason was I was doing a lot of road work. Playing clubs. A lot of travelling to places like California, Texas, all over the north. We were doing '50s and early '60s stuff. I didn't have a group except in California. I played as a single and used local bands to back me up. I also did a lot of dates with Hayden Thompson.

Q: Is the piano your main instrument?
A: Yes. I play piano in a lot of different styles. Not just like Jerry Lee. Sometimes I play rhythm guitar in clubs. Sometimes no instrument at all, just singing.

Q: What do you think of Jerry Lee?
A: Oh, he's great. I was in the studio the second day he came to Sun. He knew he was good when he first showed up. He acted then just the way he does now.

Q: I take it you have a day job to help get you by?
A: No. I just work when I take a notion. I get by some way. Some construction. Some playing on weekends. I got my house and my Cadillac. I'm just one who tried and didn't make it. Just like thousands of others. I got a lot of company.



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